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The San Jose Earthquakes are better...and the rest of the West is good, too

The glass half full and half empty ways of looking at things.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at San Jose Earthquakes Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Earthquakes played their worst game of the 2021 season on Saturday, taking an early lead before conceding three unanswered goals to Sporting Kansas City, at PayPal Park. It’s their third straight loss, all of which came at home. Time to panic?

Probably not yet. Losing three in a row is never a good thing, of course, but now that the Quakes’ record has officially dipped below .500 on the season, it may be tempting to throw your hands up and declare the season a lost cause, already in May. But that seems premature for a few reasons.

First, the Quakes are by and large playing well game to game. They struggled in the first half of the season opener at the Houston Dynamo and they struggled mightily in the 2nd half against Sporting, but otherwise they have largely matched or surpassed their opponent overall this season.

They picked things up against the Dynamo and narrowly lost in the end. They picked things up against Real Salt Lake and won. They weathered an early barrage from FC Dallas and ended up outplaying them handily. They crushed D.C. United. They outplayed the Seattle Sounders and were unlucky not to score along the way. They could have gotten a result against the Portland Timbers and didn’t execute on a couple plays. They took the lead against Sporting and then faded. The outcomes differed, but San Jose have largely stood toe-to-toe with the opponents.

It’s not just the eye test that indicates this. San Jose are first in MLS in expected goals, per American Soccer Analysis, with 12.94 through the Sporting game. And they are third in the league in actual goals scored, with 11, behind only Seattle (14) and Sporting (12). That’s...pretty good!

There have been a few big misses along the way — Andy Rios’ on Saturday, Chris Wondolowski in Houston, Cristian Espinoza and Wondo have both missed on penalty attempts, too — but there have been golazos as well. In discrete games, it is easy, and often useful, to look at specific misses in specific game states and give those major weight in the outcome of games. But with there starting to be a sample size building up for the current season, it looks like generally speaking, the misses and audacious goals are to an extent evening out.

Another interesting point comes in defense. The Earthquakes are 2nd-worst in the league in goals allowed, with 11, only FC Cincinnati (13) surpassing them. That doesn’t sound great, and obviously trimming a few goals off the last two losses would make those numbers look better, right. But, consider San Jose’s goal difference sits at 0. Their defense isn’t water-tight, but it’s not built to do that, and they are keeping steady in balancing goals scored and allowed. Meanwhile, their expected goals allowed mark at present is 10.58. What that tells me is their goals allowed are pretty much on track with the projections and so this is effectively the “real” level of the defense at present.

That’s not to say the defense couldn’t perform better, or get better players, or execute better regardless of the personnel and cut down on the goals allowed and the xGA, because it could. But even though some of the goals look awful to give up, they aren’t getting beaten by howlers.

So what is the point of all this? Are the Earthquakes good? My take is it’s a mixed bag: The group, as a whole, is playing the consistently best soccer we’ve seen under Matias Almeyda to date. The wins are great, obviously, but their level so far even in the losses has been most of the time competitive, with the Quakes at times outplaying their opponent even in defeat.

Having said all that, the rest of the Western Conference looks like it will have a high ceiling. It’s possible the Sounders could hold firm at the top of the standings all year and win the Supporters’ Shield, but it’s more likely that an Eastern Conference team will win the Shield because there are several pushovers in the East. D.C. United is embarking on a years-long rebuild this season, while FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire are both coming off their first wins of the season but both teams look likely to lose more games than they win this year. Throw in considerable uncertainty surrounding typical contenders like the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC and a few more wild cards to boot, and there are quite a few winnable games for elite Eastern teams.

Let’s look at the situation for the West, now. Who was expected to be bringing up the rear this year? Houston, they look fine. The Vancouver Whitecaps: They haven’t figured it all out yet but they still seem like they’ll win a fair number of games. Real Salt Lake: All the consideration they are going through a protracted ownership change and therefore have a shoestring budget means little so far, because they’re hanging tough in every game. The teams at the bottom of the standings right now are FC Dallas, who can beat any team on any given day, Minnesota United, who seem unlikely to be in a slump forever, and expansion side Austin FC, who are getting their sealegs but absolutely don’t look like roadkill.

Who’s going to finish at the bottom of the West this year? You tell me!!! So far, this is by far the most talented and the most clumped together Western Conference in the decade I’ve been covering MLS.

Obviously, it’s early and so a few teams could and likely will fall away from the pack as the season wears on, but my point is that for as much as the Earthquakes look like they have improved this year, the reality is they may still not have kept pace with their main competition. They could easily make the playoffs or end up in the basement of the conference this year. There’s still a ton of soccer to be played, of course, but as the season wears on, this narrative may loom larger and larger if San Jose continue to struggle to get results while looking decent-to-good, and if the Western Conference continues to be a competitive bloodbath. We’ll see.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.